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How to talk to kids about violence in the news

Police run to cover at the scene of a shooting near the Mandalay Bay resort and casino on the Las Vegas Strip, Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017, in Las Vegas.

John Locher/AP

"Today more than ever it's especially important to be able to have open, honest, accurate conversations with kids and youth about what's happening in the news," says Colleen Mousseau, a psychotherapist and grief counsellor at Dr. Jay Children's Grief Centre in Toronto. "They are constantly hearing and seeing things that they require some help processing or making sense of, and they have so many big questions that they might not be coming forward with to ask. It's our job as adults in their lives to make sure they have accurate information." Mousseau spoke with The Globe and Mail about the best way to have that conversation.

Is it right for parents to avoid these subjects because they want to shield their kids from them?

A lot of parenting relies on instinct. And one of those first instincts as a parent is to protect. And when it comes to some pretty harmful things that are happening in the world, it's instinct for parents to say, "Don't worry about that." But in fact, kids are seeing and hearing about these things, so it's important that you, as the trusted adult in their life, can help them understand what's been going on.

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What do parents you meet worry about when it comes to having these talks with their kids?

Some of the things that they're concerned about are, "I won't know what to say," or "I don't have an understanding around this topic myself, so how could I possibly explain it to kids?" I think it's okay to admit that. Kids really appreciate when they hear the adults in their life say, "I wonder about that too," or "I actually don't have an answer for that, but let's wonder about that together," or "How can I show you how I would go about finding more information on this subject?" There is a world of information out there, and some of it is accurate and some of it is not. And it's our job as adults to be able to show kids how you go about finding that information.

Another thing that parents worry about when talking about hard topics is that they are going to display too much emotion. They might break down and cry, they might get frustrated or they might get angry. And I think this is a beautiful opportunity for parents to role-model to their children: "I'm actually feeling really sad today because I just heard some really sad news that's happening in this part of the world, and I'm worrying about the kids or I'm worrying about the animals, I'm worrying about what this means for our own safety." But you can follow that up with really helpful, really tangible, actionable things for kids so that it makes sense to them. You're not overwhelming them, but you are giving them some context to what is going on.

Why do parents hold back from talking about this with their kids?

They're really just trying to make sure that kids can be kids. But not talking about it doesn't mean that kids are not worrying about it. In fact, when kids do not have all of the information, they will use their imaginations to fill in those gaps. And often their imagination creates a much different reality than what's actually true. If we can give them some accurate information around what's happening, we can let them go on and be kids.

Should we bring news up with kids if kids aren't coming to us with questions?

Kids make sense of their world through play, through questioning, but there's that same reciprocal protection factor. Parents want to protect their kids from hard realities. Kids will also do the same and protect their parents. They might be wondering about things, they might be worrying about things but not want to tell their parents because they don't want to make them upset. And this is natural, this is normal, this is healthy. What I recommend is the parent starting a conversation simply by saying, "I'm wondering what you know about this topic? I'm wondering if you've heard anything about this? Could you tell me what you do know, what you do understand?" That's a lovely way to start an open conversation. You can also approach it by saying, "I have some things that I feel are really important for you to know about some of the things going on in the world today. Would you be okay if we talked about this?"

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How do you help kids make sense of news events?

There are three really key guidelines for being able to frame conversations about challenging topics. I call these "the three C's." The first one is, kids want to know what caused this, or did I cause this? It's the sort of "why?" Why did this happen? Was it something I did, was it something somebody else did? A lot of these things we don't actually have a firm answer to, so it's about being okay with not necessarily having those answers.

The second one is, can I catch it? When we're talking about illness, that makes sense. But when we're talking about the news, it might not be something we could catch. What I really mean by that is, "Could this happen to me?" So when we're looking at things like natural disasters or violence in the news, kids really want to know, could I personally be affected by this? The natural tendency is to say, "You don't have to worry about that, it happened far away from here." The reality is, some of these things could happen closer to home. So let's have a conversation about that. What will we do if something like that were to happen closer to home? Who would help us respond, or who would be there to help ensure that our needs are being met while some of these things might be going on?

The third guideline is, "Who is going to care for me?" That really extends to: "Are my personal needs going to be met immediately? Are we at any risk in our home? Who will continue to take care of me if this bad thing were to happen closer to home?"

How do these conversations help?

What you've done by having these conversations is really open up that opportunity for kids to be able to express their worries or to be able to express when they're feeling sad or anxious about the things that are happening in the news.

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Is there any particular language or phrases that parents should avoid?

It's okay if you mess up. It's okay if you say the wrong things. Kids can really appreciate it when you say, "Can I try that again? Maybe I didn't mean what I just said there." One of the things that I really try to do when talking about some of the things happening in the world right now is to avoid using words like "bad people" or "bad guys." That feels super vulnerable for kids because that could happen anywhere. Bad guys could be outside our door right now or police officers are chasing bad guys. That doesn't feel very specific to a situation that we're talking about in the news. Instead, I would encourage parents to describe this in a way that we're describing the behaviours. So, people are making bad decisions, or people are acting violently or acting aggressively.

What is a good way of initiating one of these conversations?

I like to start by asking kids what do they know. Mention the topic. Ask them what they know. Get them to teach you what they understand. Ask them, "What do you want to know?" Let them know, "I have some information that I think would be really helpful for you to have. I'd like to be able to share it with you." But follow their lead. You don't want to overwhelm them. But you can ask them. It gives them some element of control over receiving information in a way that they really can't when they're being bombarded with all sorts of information throughout the day.

This conversation has been condensed and edited.

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About the Author

Dave McGinn writes about fitness trends for the Life section and also reports for Globe Arts. Prior to joining the Globe, he was a freelance journalist, covering topics from trying to eat Michael Phelps' diet to why the Joker is the best villain in comics history. He's working on improving his 10k time. More

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